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If there was a substance that could cause birth defects, affect brain development, promote breast cancer, prostate cancer and diabetes, change the gender of wild fish, increase heart disease, decrease your chance to have children and make you obese, where is the last place you would put it? In your food? In a baby’s drinking bottle?

Bisphenol A, better known as BPA, was invented in 1891 by Aleksandr Dianin, a Russian chemist. For nearly 70 years the substance was ignored, left on a shelf to gather dust. It was briefly tested as a replacement for Oestrogen in the 1930’s, but never used because a cheaper, more effective replacement was found. It wasn’t until the 1960s that it was discovered to be a very useful little chemical. It had the ability to polymerise: it could link together to form polycarbonate plastic. Since then, its use has seen phenomenal growth. Around the world about 3 million tonnes of the stuff is now produced every year. The BPA market is worth $2 billion in the USA alone. It is found in everything from cinema tickets and tooth fillings to DVDs, laptops and, yes…babies’ drinking bottles.

This all seemed well and good for a long time. However, there is a big problem. The bond that holds a BPA polymer together is weak. It breaks down over time. This means it leaches into its surroundings, and that makes BPA a very dangerous substance indeed. BPA can be found almost everywhere and perhaps most worryingly, within us. A 2003-4 study in the USA found detectable levels of BPA in 90% of more than 2,000 people tested. Young people were found to be more exposed.

It is widely recognised that BPA in high doses is bad news for people and animals, causing all of the problems described above, and more. Now there is growing evidence that even low doses are harmful. Over the past decade, an increasing number of studies have indicated that even at very low levels (lower than recommended by industry or most regulators), BPA is dangerous. Supporters of BPA argue that large-scale studies (most funded by industry) have not found the same negative effects of low-dose exposure on animals identified in academic studies. However, in a review of BPA studies as of December 2004, out of 115 published studies, 94 found that animals were badly affected by low-level exposure, suffering a range of impacts from reduced fertility to cancer growth.

Regulators are starting to take note, despite a lot of industry pressure to keep BPA in products. Just last week, the European Commission decided to ban the use of BPA in baby bottles from 2011. In the USA a handful of states have taken the same action and banned BPA in baby bottles and food containers. In Canada a ban came in force in March 2010.

At ClientEarth, we think the evidence that low doses of BPA are harmful to humans and animals is compelling enough to warrant urgent action. There is no good reason to keep on swallowing BPA contained in food cans or in plastic bottles. Should we be absorbing BPA through our skin when we get a receipt from a cash machine or when we play a DVD?

There are benefits from BPA. It makes plastic harder and keeps canned food out of contact from metal, but what we get in exchange may be breast cancer, prostate cancer, or harming the brain development of our children. The risks from BPA far outweigh the benefits. There should be a worldwide ban of this substance from all the products that lead to the most common exposures. Not only baby bottles, but also food contact materials and any possible exposure for pregnant mothers. Now you know what BPA can do, what do you think should be done with it?

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